This is all happening amid the outbreak of a major pandemic, the collapse of the economy, a nationwide surge of protests demanding racial justice, an unexpectedly rapid jobs bounce-back, a second wave of Covid-19 deaths, a rise in the murder rate, and the release of a half-dozen insider books about the Trump administration full of shocking depictions of official misconduct.
Under the circumstances, President Trump needed the first debate against Biden to go his way. It’s hard to believe that any debate could change the tide that much. It’s also hard to believe anyone who tuned in to Tuesday night’s exchange gleaned actual information about public policy in the United States. Biden spent relatively little time describing his plans for the country, focusing mostly on parrying Trump’s attacks and occasionally trying to appeal to the ordinary humans who are suffering in America’s current circumstances. Trump, meanwhile, slung a nonstop barrage of nonsense that completely overwhelmed moderator Chris Wallace’s feeble efforts to enforce the rules.
But if Trump’s theory was that Biden would melt under the pressure, it didn’t happen. He stood his ground, he delivered his talking points, and while it’s doubtful he picked up a ton of new supporters, he’s not the candidate who needs them most.
Here’s who won and who lost in the mess of the first presidential debate.
Winner: Cross-talk and malarkey
The debate opened with what was allegedly an exchange about Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court, then pivoted to a discussion of health care, and rapidly degenerated into nonsense as Trump interrupted so compulsively that it was impossible to extract any kind of coherent comment from either candidate.
That, in turn, produced an unorthodox zinger from Biden: “Will you shut up, man?”
The debate regained some equilibrium after a topic shift to Covid-19, but the basic process kept breaking down again and again. Pre-debate briefings from the Trump camp made it clear that the president’s strategy would be to behave aggressively, but Trump’s decision to try to stomp all over the basic debate format was surprising. The result was to basically ruin the show, making the program often impossible to follow or learn anything from.
Given that Biden already had a substantial lead and the debates are a rare high-profile opportunity for Trump to turn it around, that’s probably a win for the challenger. The idea, evidently, was to rattle Biden and expose his supposed mental infirmity — but it didn’t work because the mental infirmity is more blatantly false Facebook meme than reality.
Loser: The “Biden has dementia” theory
For months now the Trump camp has been lying and saying that Biden won’t leave his basement, and for weeks they’ve been increasingly explicit in arguing that he has dementia. Because this isn’t true, they’ve been making the case for it largely via doctored videos and lying about a particular image of Biden sitting for an interview with Telemundo.
The problem with this, as Team Trump seems to have belatedly realized, is that you normally don’t lower expectations for your opponent pre-debate. Biden did not excel in any of the Democratic Party primary debates. But before his one-on-one encounter with Sen. Bernie Sanders just before the primaries wrapped up, some members of Sanders’s camp ran this exact dementia play — to disastrous results when the two men met live onstage, where Biden delivered his completely normal humdrum performance and it played as a triumph.
Consequently, much of Tuesday was taken up with charges from Trumpland that Biden was planning to cheat in the debate with the use of some sort of illicit performance-enhancing drug or secret earpiece. As wild lies to hedge against earlier wild lies, this wasn’t a terrible last-ditch effort. Fox News even trotted out Brit Hume before the debate to warn the audience not to believe their lying eyes and claim that just because Biden doesn’t seem like he’s suffering from dementia doesn’t mean he isn’t.
Now Brit Hume is on to say that Biden is definitely senile but there's a chance that won't be visible tonight and he'll be well-prepped and perform well anyway. pic.twitter.com/L22kyboYNE— Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) September 30, 2020
But then the debate happened, and Biden was … fine.
Let’s be honest: There’s a reason his 1988 and 2008 campaigns didn’t set the world on fire — he just does not have the charisma level of a Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, or Barack Obama. But he’s a totally normal politician who can stand up there and do his talking points and zingers for 90 minutes just like anyone else. Throwing the “my opponent is senile” Hail Mary may have made a certain amount of strategic sense for Trump given that at this point, he is not going to come up with a viable plan to fight Covid-19 or alter the public’s entrenched perception of him. But it just doesn’t work because it’s not true.
Loser: Racial justice
Wallace chose “race and crime in our cities” as a debate topic, framing both lawlessness and city living as explicitly racialized and positing some kind of trade-off between equity and public safety that there’s no evidence for. Trump, naturally, ate it up, castigating all racial justice advocates as “anarchists,” blaming Democratic-run cities for all crime problems (homicides are also up in the small number of GOP-run cities), and slamming his opponent’s supposed desire to defund the police (Biden in fact advocates for more police).
Basic questions about the existence of racial justice outside the narrow scope of law enforcement went unaddressed. So did the fairly extensive evidence that there is significant racial bias in police stops, a much wider issue than the question of how to handle the specific, egregious cases that end with a civilian death and national controversy.
Biden held his own in the exchange, parrying Trump’s claims on police funding and, likely for the first time, introducing a national audience to the reality that the Trump administration has repeatedly proposed cuts in police funding.
But the actual topic of racial justice was incredibly ill-served by this narrow and poorly framed debate.
Loser: Chris Wallace
A presidential debate moderator has one main job: to let both sides speak and share their vision for the country, with minimal interruption and proper time limits. By that standard, moderator Chris Wallace failed.
The tone was set early, when Trump almost immediately started interrupting Biden when it was his time to speak. Trump’s interruptions made it nearly impossible to hear what Biden was saying, and caused the debate to repeatedly break down into unintelligible yelling and arguments about whether the candidates were following the debate’s rules and time limits.
Wallace at times tried to stop the interruptions. But he repeatedly blamed both Trump and Biden, when Trump was clearly doing far more of the interrupting. At one point, Wallace seemed to give up altogether, saying, “I’m going to ask a question about race, but if you want to answer something else, go ahead.”
It wasn’t until an hour and 10 minutes into the debate, out of an hour and a half, that Wallace called Trump out: “Mr. President, your campaign agreed both sides would get two-minute answers uninterrupted. Your side agreed to it. And why don’t you observe that?”
Even after that, Trump continued to interrupt Biden. Wallace never really claimed control of the stage. He even had to declare, “This is the end of this debate,” when it was over, signaling he couldn’t even successfully bring the program to an end.
This almost certainly wasn’t the debate that Wallace wanted. And it left Americans with a largely incoherent mess.
One of the best books I’ve read on US foreign policy in the past few years is 2016’s America Abroad, by Dartmouth professors Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth. One of the book’s central argument is that the United States is not only the world’s most powerful country, but so far ahead of its competitors on conventional metrics — like military power and technological advancement — that no country could feasibly catch up in the near future. China in particular, they argue, is far less capable of overtaking the United States than is generally understood.
It’s a contrarian argument, but a compelling one. Or at least it would be if the US weren’t suffering from a crippling level of internal division. No country, no matter how powerful, can effectively wield power abroad when it’s preoccupied by internal divisions. No government can feasibly end American global hegemony — except for the American one.
What we saw tonight, the muddled mess and anger, reflects the paralyzing levels of internal division currently racking the United States. Sure, the proximate cause is Trump’s personal style, and the clear personal animosity between the two men on display. But it also reflected the dangerously polarized nature of American politics at this particular moment, even on fundamental issues of how our political system should work.
At the very end of the debate, for example, Trump wouldn’t even pledge to accept defeat — responding to Wallace’s question on this front by encouraging his followers to show up at polling stations in Philadelphia, a Democratic stronghold in a key battleground state, “because bad things happen in Philadelphia.”
This wasn’t just ugly in an aesthetic sense; it was ugly in a more fundamental one, a sign of a system breaking down as rival camps within it no longer universally accept the rules of the game. And nobody benefits more from this kind of internal discord in the world’s most powerful state than China.
Winner: Speaking directly to the American people
In some of his strongest statements during the debate on Tuesday, Biden drew a stark contrast: Speaking directly into the camera, he addressed Americans who may have lost a family member during the pandemic, or suffered devastating job losses as the economy has plummeted in recent months.
“How many of you got up this morning and had an empty chair at the kitchen table because someone died of Covid?” he asked, while maintaining eye contact. “How many of you are in a situation where you lost your mom or dad and you couldn’t even speak to them and had a nurse holding a phone up so you could, in fact, say goodbye?”
This remark — and others like it — offered a brief glimpse of humanity in a debate filled with cross-talk and insults, and was among the most effective in highlighting how Biden would govern differently than Trump has. Even as the president falsely emphasized how effective his coronavirus response has been yet again, Biden provided a sense of what leadership looks like when a president actually cares about what people are going through.
“It’s not about my family or his family, it’s about you,” Biden said. The dueling statements on Tuesday made clear that only one of the men onstage felt this way.
Loser: America’s safety
Wallace, the debate moderator, asked Trump to disavow and condemn white supremacists. He didn’t do it, instead merely telling the Proud Boys group to “stand by” while criticizing left-wing movements like antifa.
Set aside, if you can, the moral failure of Trump refusing to denounce white supremacists. That’s horrible enough. But he’s the commander in chief, and not condemning white supremacists is a dereliction of duty — since they are the greatest domestic terrorist threat to the United States.
“Racially motivated violent extremism,” mostly from white supremacists, has made up most of the recent domestic terrorist threats, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the House Homeland Security Committee this month. The Trump-friendly Department of Homeland Security has drafted memos making the same point. And the State Department has, for the first time ever, designated white supremacist groups as terrorists.
There’s a reason Trump’s own administration makes that case. The past few years have seen mass shootings perpetrated by white nationalists in the US, and their danger to the homeland has of late surpassed that of radical Islamic groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS (though those groups still remain dangerous). To think of white supremacy, then, is to think of an ideology that animates a major national security risk.
Yet when confronted with the chance to shout it down, Trump didn’t. That’s wrong on its own, but it’s also shocking to see the president not denounce a threat to millions of Americans.
Worse now, the one specific white supremacist group he was asked to denounce — the Proud Boys — are already celebrating that moment. “Trump basically said to go fuck them up!” one group leader said after that debate moment.